As we embark on one of society’s biggest education experiments ever, with kids around the globe going back to school virtually this fall, I’m going to share some of the best tips for online learning that I’ve picked up and a virtual group hug, because this has not been easy on any of us.
Last September, after a 28 year absence, I went back to school. I started taking psychology online at Queen’s and quickly realized that I had underestimated how hard learning online is. It wasn’t until Chapter 11 when we jumped into Factors Influencing Learning that a) a lightbulb went off and b) I wondered, “Why wasn’t this Chapter 1?!”
By the following March, the age old concept of traditional learning for kids would derail in a spectacular fashion. Coupled with inordinate stress and a system that was wholly unprepared to handle this massive shift, many kids struggled to finish their school year.* Five months later, parents are making hard decisions when it comes to the year ahead, and in a world where nothing is normal, it’s important to know there are other options available. Public schools are offering online learning, in addition to a hybrid in class/online curriculum. Some parents are looking at unschooling, and others are dipping their toes into homeschooling.
This summer, Ontario Virtual School offered my daughter the chance to try out two high school courses with them. An accessible alternative from standardized in-classroom learning, OVS allows the flexibility for each student to progress at their own pace, and on their own schedule.
While OVS certainly hasn’t been preparing for this moment, I did take comfort in knowing that they have been successfully teaching students online for ten years now. OVS offers OSSD credits at all levels to Ontario students, whether it’s college or university, in addition to upskilling.
Most impressive from the moment Ava logged in, was how intuitive and natural the program worked. Each course has a lesson, and then homework. Teachers respond within 24 hours to any questions and the site offers a ton of support with interactive videos, downloadable docs, and powerpoint presentations.
Each lesson in the course encourages mastery before the student moves on. At every step, there are how-to videos that helps students navigate everything from navigating course content to discussion forums to using the test centres. Even if you don’t enrol your child in OVS, it’s worth checking out for the free courses they offer that help with learning skills and digital literacy.
No matter what though, it is without question that students will be learning online this year, and that requires a lot of self-discipline, and effective strategies to learn. Ultimately, the work can’t be done for them, so here are some tips to set you up for success.
Best Tips for Online Learning Success
The science is clear on this, desire to learn is not as important as study habits. Simply declaring “you’ve got this” is not enough. Trust me, I thought for sure that my obsession with learning all there was to know about psychology was all I needed to succeed. Turns out that in order to encode the content to memory, I needed more than ambition. Unfortunately, I never used the following tools my first time around in school, so learning how to study was happening simultaneously with what I was actually learning when I went back.
- Manage your time. Most online courses will give you an hour per course requirement. For example my daughter has two online courses with Ontario Virtual School right now. Each course will take roughly 110 hours to complete. Using that number, if she studies 3 hours a day, five days a week, she will complete her course in approximately six weeks. Once you have determined when your course will finish, it’s time to jump into using a calendar filling in everything including study time, instruction time, end date, exam dates, etc. Don’t forget to block off time for work and fun! Taking breaks from studying is important when trying to remember the content later.
- Talk about it. The absolute hardest part of adapting to online studying is the lack of a sounding board; the absence of back and forth. The best way to overcome this is to teach your friends, your parents, your pets if need be. Tell them what you learned that day, and don’t be embarrassed to pause and look up your notes mid-conversation. By talking about what you’re learning you are further committing that information to memory.
- Manage distraction. The struggle with online learning is that shiny things like Facebook and YouTube are only a tab away. Don’t even get me started on the draw of your phone with dopamine hits just waiting to pull you away on TikTok and Instagram. You absolutely must fight fire with fire. You are not weak for feeling the pull because apps are made to addict you, but if you don’t acknowledge the pull you’ll never be able to manage it. Leave your phone out of the room, use the Pomodoro technique, add a distraction filter to your browser.
- Interleave. Rather than blocking your studying, interleaving is infinitely more effective for learning. Watch this video for more.
- Dump it. Our brains are complex, and so it’s not uncommon to be studying and suddenly remember that you ran out of deodorant that morning, or you haven’t called a friend back. Quickly put it on a nearby doodle pad. Important, do not enter it on your phone. This simple act of picking up your phone can cause you to lose your focus when TikTok comes calling.
- Set up a study spot. Just like attending school in person, the importance behind structure, routine, and a bright, comfortable study spot can not be underestimated. That doesn’t mean you can’t make this fun. Create a space you love and make a new morning routine. At least for this year, if you’re learning 100% online, you won’t have to worry about standing at as bus stop in the cold, or packing a lunch! Make a new routine and get to it!
Disclosure: I was offered two high school courses for my daughter to try this summer in exchange for this review. Ontario Virtual School is a private online school that is an option for some, not a solution for all. I wish you all the best of luck as we each to try to navigate these very trying times this year.
*I need to stress here that this is not a judgment because I have mad respect for the educators who worked tirelessly to get thousands of kids across the finish line this year, not to mention the struggle as they work towards safely getting kids back to school this year.